Revisiting "Strange Days"

Revisiting "Strange Days"

Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 sci-fi flop Strange Days would be a prime candidate for our occasional feature "The Misunderstood" if it didn't have a fervent cult following. It's an alluring slice of tech-obsessed dystopia with an incredible (but for one exception in Juliette Lewis) cast, a killer soundtrack and a fairly unique premise. Despite all of this, it took home a pretty anemic gross at theaters, not even earning back 1/5 of its budget. I'd like to argue that, even though so much of Strange Days is dated today, it would play much better to a 2011 audience than it did to its original viewers in 1995.

Here's the super-quick breakdown of the plot of Strange Days. Ralph Fiennes, hot off two hit roles in Schindler's List and Quiz Show, plays Lenny, a disgraced former cop in 1999 Los Angeles. Once a capable detective, Lenny got mixed up in a sort of "digital drug" that lets people experience the memories of others using a recording device attached to the head. The experience is intense but it tends to make junkies of its frequent users, Lenny among them. Now a dealer of black market recordings, Lenny quickly gets tangled up in a murder mystery that may be part of a vast conspiracy. With the help of a tough bodyguard named Mace (played by Angela Bassett), Lenny puts the pieces of the mystery together in a sort of cyberpunk-meets-noir-detective case.

To understand why it flopped, it's important to remember when Strange Days hit theaters. 1995 was an unusual time, culturally speaking, and a lot of Strange Days fails because the audience reacted in more or less the opposite way writers James Cameron and Jay Cocks anticipated. One of the major plot points in the film is the murder of a rapper and political activist named Jeriko One by two corrupt police officers. In L.A. in the mid 90's, this can be nothing other than a reference to the Rodney King scandal and the riots that erupted after King's uniformed assailants were acquitted. Cameron and Cocks needed their audience to want to relive that trauma, or at least find meaning in it, but in the prosperous, optimistic era of the mid 1990's, audiences more frequently rejected heavy subject matter in favor of light, even mindless entertainment.

But Strange Days isn't just weighed down by the past, it's being pulled at both ends. The story is set in 1999, a year that was heavy with foreboding because of silly fears like Y2K, more than the usual number of apocalyptic prophesies from religious extremists and a general anxiety about the millennium changing. Strange Days depicts that period as the culmination of all that horror, its vision of the world full of violence, paranoia and the destruction of the mind and soul by technology. That's not exactly what viewers wanted to see in the time of the candy-colored iMac and the return of Boy Band bubblegum pop.

But in the decade that would follow, the poverty, degradation and paranoia that characterized Strange Days was hot at the movies. If it had premiered the same year as, say, Children of Men, Strange Days likely would have been a resounding success. It also would have had a lot of eerie cultural power thanks to the likes of Youtube and the ubiquity of mobile technology coming awfully close to the SQUID devices at the center of the story. Strange Days deserves more than its small but devoted cult and the occasional appearance on weekend cable slots. It deserves a full re-evaluation from a modern perspective.